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Best of 08: David Jones

The Realtime Worlds boss muses on emergent gameplay, studio independence, and the Halo 3 beta giveaway with Crackdown

Raising finance for the production of videogames is nothing new, but earlier this year one deal stood out thanks to its headline USD 50 million tag. Realtime Worlds secured the money as a go-to-market fund for its forthcoming MMO title APB, and also to pay for the production of a second, unannounced (but much speculated-upon) second MMO.

In a rare interview following the funding announcement, Realtime Worlds founder and CEO David Jones spoke to about those projects, how gameplay is changing, and the success of previous project Crackdown. So what are you going to do with the USD 50 million?
David Jones

Well, it seems like a lot of money, but because we're in a big development, a big online game, they do require a significant investment - especially to launch something which is groundbreaking and world-leading. And we have another online title in development as well, which we haven't announced yet, so really to do that, and to stay independent with those titles for as long as possible, requires significant investment.

So it seems like a big number, but it is quite a bit more expensive than developing a boxed retail product.

But what's been lucky, as we've talked to investors over the last few months, unlike the traditional retail box model, I think it's good to see they're willing to back moves in the online space. Because as developers it lets us get a bit higher up in the value chain, which is great - and I don't think we'd have found investment like that for a traditional boxed product. The online space has changed beyond recognition in the past few years - do you think Vivendi's revenue from World of Warcraft helped to give confidence to investors?
David Jones

I think it's given developers a different route they can take. I think it's good to have some exemplars out there, as well as the one that everybody quotes, but then you can also look at what you might call the lighter casual titles, like Club Penguin, Jagex with Runescape - there's a lot of stuff out there that's doing really well in terms of online.

So I think there are quite a few success stories out there, and in many ways they eclipse the studios doing the more traditional retail boxed product. Everybody sees the market has only just started, and there's still a huge potential for growth.

But the stories that are out there certainly help for the investment community to be happy, and eager to invest. Do you feel that USD 50 million is enough to see you through until revenues from APB's release start coming in?
David Jones

Yes, basically we call it our 'go-to-market fund' - effectively we've got everything we need now to launch two online games, and basically after that they have to be standalone, they have to support the business going forward.

The process was actually pretty straightforward. It is a bit unusual for developers to go to the investment community and actually get backing, but we learnt a lot - we met quite a few of the funds that are investors in some of the other online companies, and they definitely know the markets.

I still think you have to go with something that's innovative and a bit out of the box in terms of thinking. You have a personal track record in the industry, and Crackdown has won awards - how important were those aspects in sourcing the funding?
David Jones

I think fairly important - at the end of the day they're investing in what we personally believe is a great game, and as you know that's a tough call to make, especially with new IP, so they do put a lot of faith in the track record of the management team.

But then again there are companies out there, like Jagex with Runescape, that was their first ever game. They hadn't done anything before, but there still seems to be backing there for the innovators, who just have one idea, maybe who want to release something on a lower budget.

But for the big, big budget, it was obviously something that figured heavily in their decision process. Realtime Worlds doesn't do things by halves - with your projects so far, you're setting the bar pretty high, and they're not easy projects. Is that stubbornness, or confidence? How would you characterise the company's outlook?
David Jones

I think it's also just being realistic. It's easy for some people to underestimate what it really takes these days to produce a great game. It's certainly true of the retail market in online as well.

So we're very resolute, we know what it takes, we know how much it costs, and we don't kid ourselves that it's going to take anything less.

Just sticking to that principle, not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes, both internally within the company and with investors, saying yes, it is a lot of money, but truly that's what it takes.

Unfortunately these days it does take that amount. Crackdown wasn't that long ago and our development budget was something like USD 20 million, and even that to me now... I don't know if I could do anything for much less than that.

You've got the Call of Dutys, GTA IV - some challenging stuff to try and beat out there, or at least set a bar equal to that. But those are both franchise titles - do you find it a little disappointing that the market has become, and understandably so because of the cost, dominated by franchises and sequels?
David Jones

Yeah - it's just a natural by-product of the way the market is. If anybody goes to somebody and says they want USD 20-25 million to try and create a new product... it's hard enough to create one game. I struggled with Crackdown - it's not just about making Crackdown, it's about trying to make something with franchise potential, it's about thinking about the next five years, and where we can take the game as well.

That's the hard part, especially when many, many genres have been done extremely well now. It's very tough, I find it tough as well, and in some respects that's one of the nice things I like about online is that it's actually a very tough model to keep doing over and over again.

At least with online the launch is at the beginning, and as a developer we launch the thing, and hopefully people like it and it starts to take off - but then we can really devote resources to it going forward, and get a lot more life out of the title, rather than just talking about sequels. So what do you consider as the franchise potential of Crackdown?
David Jones

Well, there were so many ways we could take that - basically I loved the potential new attributes and skills that you could bring to your agents, I loved the whole thing about the Agency, do more about where they came from, taking it to further cities - even add a bit of an RPG element to it by adding those skills, and so on.

It has got online potential because of that, and it's a game where you could see online potential, introducing more Agency vehicles, more over-the-top skills... just making it easy to see that future progression is important in a franchise, whereas in some other games, maybe your World War I shooters, because they're constrained by the realism of them, it's hard to see where you could keep building and building them without releasing the typical sequel. It is hard to get funding for games, and you've resisted the option of becoming a publisher-owned studio, but have you had many offers?
David Jones

No, not really, but we've been so focused on what we're doing, moving more and more into the online space, that we've not really have many dealings with them. Really we worked with Microsoft on Crackdown when the company launched, and that's been it. Does that surprise you? There are a lot of acquisitions going on.
David Jones

No, not really. Obviously we've had Crackdown, now we're just keeping our heads low and working on APB, and we're still relatively young. We've only had one game, so once you build up more of a portfolio, have more games live, and so on, there might be some interest there.

But it's not been on our radar either, it's just not something we've thought about. People have wanted to visit, but we've said there's just nothing to show so far, and we don't want to show anything until we're happy with it internally. Maybe we'll have some conversations once we're at that point.

We need to decide as well, even in the online space, what kind of collaboration we want to have with the traditional publishers as well - is there going to be a boxed product? Those kinds of questions need to be answered further down the line. Obviously at this point your independence is very important to you anyway, so I assume you don't have any interest in sacrificing that at this point?
David Jones

No, especially when we're setting the vision for the company, obviously that's something that we've got to have, got to stick to - especially when we're developing the game. We're doing things outside of the box that are probably quite scary to publishers, in terms of risk and everything, and that's why it probably works better if we just go for external funding just now.

I think it's good for creativity as well, to have that funding that's not publisher funding. Going back to the release of Crackdown, there was a big fuss about the Halo 3 beta keys, and it's fair to say that your game was a bit misunderstood. So it must be quite satisfying to see the game win critical acclaim, win at the BAFTAs, and be proved right in the end?
David Jones

It's always tough because it's one of those games that was very tough to explain what it's about. You always struggle to market those kinds of games.

Secondly, in some respects - like the original Grand Theft Auto as well, when people just said it was a top-down 2D driving game, everything else is 3D these days, it's going to be rubbish...

And it didn't look great in screenshots, because in this generation... you had Gears of War where you had four characters, making them look absolutely stunning, but we're all about huge vistas, and thousands of characters and vehicles and dynamic environments... but when you compare that in screenshots to Gears, you obviously pale into insignificance. And the screenshot can never convey how much fun a game is to play.
David Jones

And that's why we had to do the demo - it's a game you had to try, and that's why when we showed people, when they looked at the screenshots, they just couldn't get the game from that.

That's one of the reasons - the whole Halo 3 thing - it was a marketing attempt to try and get people playing it. There's no other way for people to understand this game unless they play it.

So for that reason, when they proposed it, I sat on the fence. On the one hand I could see the down side of it, people saying we must be desperate to sell it - but I knew that when people played it, the same as us internally, they'd see it was really good fun. On balance are you pretty pleased with the way the Halo 3 beta key method worked out then?
David Jones

Oh yes, absolutely. Between that and the demo on Xbox Live, I think it got into people's hands, and they made buying decisions based on what they played, which is great. Other companies must have watched the effect the demo had, and saw that it was good, because a lot of games now have demos, but not so many then?
David Jones

Yes - and you still see a lot of developers say that they can't do a demo until the game is finished, and it comes out after release - and I can understand the reasoning behind that, and some of them even worry, because if the game's not that great the demo will show that as well.

So in some respects you have to have confidence in your product in order to do a demo prior to launch. In the end, critical acclaim is one thing, but units sold is what really counts - moving on to APB, what were the learning experiences from Crackdown that you took to the new project?
David Jones

Not a tremendous amount, purely the fact that we knew that we'd come up with the core, core fun mechanic, and you can build a tremendous experience around that. And we wanted to build around that a tremendous online experience – it's something we wanted to do with Crackdown, but there was no way, with boxed product, that it was a game we could do.

So it comes back to design principles, making sure that the game was more about the player's experiences, rather than the traditional heavy story-telling, and using the online focus to build upon that a great deal. Is it nice to be talking about APB at last?
David Jones

Yes - GDC was the first time we showed anything, and that was after about three years of development, so we kept it very quiet. But we're now at the stage where we're very happy with the assets and where the game's at - there's a lot of exciting stuff in that game, and we are proud of it, and it's exciting to show people.

But there's a lot to take in with that game, I think we're just going to take people through it bit by bit, what APB is, what it's all about. Was it nerve-wracking?
David Jones

Yes, because you're so close to it, you have no idea if people will get it - but the response has been tremendous, even though we didn't show much at GDC.

What I think is really exciting is that there are a lot of people out there that haven't really experienced an online game, the majority have just been in purely matchmaking stuff... World of Warcraft may have 10 million players, but there are still many millions more who haven't found anything, in terms of a dedicated persistent world, that is appealing.

Many people have said this is the kind of game they've been waiting for as their first online persistent world game, so that was really good feedback. Obviously a lot of people picked up on the detailed character customisation - in terms of doing something new, and innovating, that's what people will respond to first?
David Jones

Yes, and we wanted to make that [innovation] in every part of the game, starting with that as the first thing you do - so people have seen character customisation before, but not crafted to that level.

We treat that like any other part of the game - a fun, easy-to-use, crafted experience. Games like The Sims show how popular something like that really is.
David Jones

Yes, and we also looked at other platforms, with over-the-top customisations - things like Second Life - where you had so much control... too much control, and things looked awful.

It's like you want to let people make whatever they want, but no matter how bad an artist they are, you want it to look good, so it was a whole project in itself. You're a big fan of emergent gameplay - it's something that's cropped up in your previous games, and it looks like it will be a big feature of APB?
David Jones

Yes, absolutely, it'll be a big part of it. Part of the fun is not knowing how it will manifest itself, but it's watching what people do, the things they act out, the fun they're having, so it's just building upon that.

For example, they want to make videos of it, so they can show their friends and we'll add the tools to let them do that. It's giving them the basic building blocks - in APB, it does have missions, but it's playing against the players on the other side of the mission. Just that one thing - because actually it's very unique, and very new, and you have no idea who you're going to come up against, or how they're going to react.

So every time you have a typical mission, it's actually completely different. Pushing the boundaries like that makes the game, so that every time people play it, it's a whole different experience - so they have no idea who they're going to see, what music they're going to hear... it's kind of dangerous, but we've actually found it to work extremely well. The whole concept of gameplay has completely changed over the years, from being told a story to being encouraged to write you own - how significant is that trend towards more interactivity and user control?
David Jones

I think it's very significant, I think it's where games really find their own unique place in the entertainment spectrum. You can look at movies, which are great if you just want passive entertainment - and there are games like that, storytelling games like Half-Life 2, and I still enjoy those kinds of games.

But I don't want to discuss that with my friends, because we both had the same experience, it's not like we can tell different stories. To me it's when people have completely their own experience in the same game - that's what makes games shine as their own entertainment medium, and I'm very keen to just keep pushing that angle, and I think that's what makes people excited.

And I think that's why they want to make videos... you don't really want to make a video of Half-Life 2, because it's going to look exactly the same as your friend's. But in APB... it'll be like in Crackdown, people made loads of videos, they were doing stuff we had no idea they could do, and I love it - and I think the players love it too.

David Jones is the founder and CEO of Realtime Worlds. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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